Monday, April 02, 2007

Sex, Drugs and Rock n YA

This is a topic I've been wrestling with in YA for a few weeks now. I am working on my second YA novel HOW LIA MET ANA and my book is well...boring! My main character goes from being an uninspired tomboy to having an eating disorder without much of a personality change. She is not acting like a teenager at all.

How to liven things up? Sex, drugs and some rock and roll, of course! My question for everyone is: how far can we go in YA books in regards to sex and drugs? My main character, Liah, is sixteen and average. She's had boyfriends, she has friends, but is tired of being one-of-the-crowd. She wants to beautiful and special and...wanted. That leads to her eating disorder and also a bit of a wanton attitude when it comes to sex. She fools aound heavily with a guy she just met (an OLDER guy) and is ready to sleep with him becuase he makes her feel good. And because the love of her life has fallen for someone else. Of course, a few twists and turns later, she has the opportunity to seduce the love of her life. Does she or doesn't she? You'll have to wait and see.

The drugs part: Liah starts to rely heaviy on diet pills and becomes an addict...until a very real tragedy stares her in the face and she needs to make a decision.

My questions for you writers and you readers is this:
- Is it acceptable for teen characters to have on-screen sex in novels when the target audience is ages 13-15? Or maybe even 12-14? I've read books where it's something like. "He kissed her, lowered her to the bed....The next morning, he was gone.", but I've never read any on-screen stuff. I feel like the on-screen part is necessary in my books because of all the regrets my main character is having during and after some of the acts.

-Is diet pill abuse kosher?

I have never been one of the "rule following" girls, but I don't know what is allowed in 2007 and what isn't. As far as I remeber from my YA days, there wasn't any actual sex or drug use in books, nor was there any drug use. In today's day, with GOSSIP GIRL and the ALIST, I know there is.

I would love to get your thoughts on this...

Currently, I'm reading DAUGHTER OF FORTUNE by Isabelle Allende and THE WARRIOR TRAINER by Gerri Russell.

Dona Sarkar-Mishra
-------'----,----@ @----,-----'-------
HOW TO SALSA IN A SARI - January 2008 Kimani Tru


Becky said...

I really think anything goes these days. (This Is All by Aidan Chambers comes to mind to just how far you can well as Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist.) I think a good percentage (if not the majority) do show teens having sex and/or drinking, doing drugs, or smoking.

TinaFerraro said...

Dona, my books lean strongly to the sweet side, so I haven't paid a lot of attention to what is out there. But my opinion is to write-it-like-you-feel-it, and then let your editor tell you when you've gone too far.

I know I've done that with some of my humor, and there have been times when I went too far and we trimmed it back, and others where my editor liked it so much she wanted more...

I'm interested in hearing what others think!

stephhale said...

Let's face it. Teens have sex and do drugs. If the subject matter fits your novel I say leave it in.


Dona Sarkar-Mishra said...

Looks like the general consensus is to leave it!

I never thought I would have this problem. I don't even write sex and drugs in my adult novels, but then, I've never tackled such a hard topic before either.

I think 16 yr old girls have it pretty hard nowadays. And I guess I shouldn't be afraid to show just how hard.

Thanks gals!

alexgirl said...

I agree with everything said here. It's naive to dumb it down for your readers and assume they can't handle it.
My first draft of BACK TALK was waaay too PG and my agent said I had to up the risqué factor--she was so right. I felt a little silly adding in swear words and shots of tequila, but the truth is, if I was doing all that in high school, why should I try to cover it up!
Great post Dona.

Diana Peterfreund said...

13-15? I wouldn't, but that's me. I'd probably not be writing a book for children that age that would need a sex scene in it. :-)

When I see the age recommendations for books, though, that's not the "range" I see.

I see things like:

Grade 6 and up (Uglies, which is innocent)
Grade 8 and up (Pretties, which makes it obvious that Tally sleeps with Zane)
Grade 9 and up (valiant, with on the page sex, and also Faking 19, with ditto)

(And I can't remember where, but I do recall seeing valiant described elsewhere as "16 and up.")

In neither of the cases with on the page sex is it anything graphic. The sex happens during a scene, but body parts are NOT mentioned.

I'm also not saying that the books got these age recommendations (from School Library Journal, I might add, not from the publisher) due only to the sexual content. But it is something to keep in mind.

I also wouldn't put sex and drugs in a book to make it more interesting. Then, isn't it gratuitous? When I put a scene in a book, it's because the book NEEDS that scene. And then I am not thinking about the age range or etc., I'm thinking about the book.

When you put sex in a book meant for children, you do it knowing that there are going to be some readers/parents/etc. who will not be reading your book because of that, or who will be reading it and then writing you angry letters about it. So I wouldn't put it in to spice things up, but only because it is necessary for the story for the sex scene to take place on the page.

I have written sex scenes in books, and I have NOT put sex scenes in books where sex takes place, and I make that decision based on how important it is to actually show that scene, and not on the audience. In the first SSG book, the sex was not as important as the decision to have sex, so it wasn't in there.

Me said...

When I first read Gossip Girl, I had been so primed by all the "gossip" about the risque factor that when I finally got to "the scene" I was pretty underwhelmed.

I think it's all in how you deal with the scene. Since she'll be full of regrets even as it's happening, I don't think you're in danger of over-glamorizing it. And, if you go deep into her head while it's on-screen, you might not end up very graphic anyway.

So, my bottom line is, it's all in the execution.

Nadine said...

I remember reading this book I happened upon in the library on the YA floor (couldn't tell you anything else about it as I was probably 14 at the time)and it was about a young girl (either 14 or 16) who has an affair with her teacher. I don't remember it being graphic, but it was clear they were having a sexual relationship. The book was awesome. It wasn't at all light & fluffy as much YA is, but was very engrossing, and let's face it, a lot of pervy guys hit on 14 and 16 year-olds and if the self-esteem of said 14-16 year-old happens to be in the gutter, as is the case for most teens, it's very plausible they'd buckle under pressure and flattery. Especially if they don't have an open relationship with their parents.

I love the concept of this book, I think it's very relevant and truthful, so write what feels right and what the story needs, then let your editor figure out the rest.

As for the drugs, aren't teens the prime drug-consuming demographic? (at least the *softer* drugs)? I guess it boils down to how true-to-life you want to be in your book.

Dona Sarkar-Mishra said...

I love this discusion, thanks everyone for weighing in!

Alex: I understand that! I feel like my book is too PG given that the main character is a 16 year old girl with major self-esteem issues.

Diana: I don't want to "add" sex to make the book interesting. I just feel like the main character is not showing her true self and is instead doing what I, Dona Sarkar, would do, rather than what she, Lia Mandeville, would do.

TLC: I totally agree about Gossip Girls and yes, the whole scene is very much in her head and she's regretting what she'd doing as she does it, but figures its the only way she'l get the guy.

Nadine: Do you happen to remember the name of the book?

Anonymous said...

This really is a great discussion. I think that where sex, drinking and drugs is concerned, its like every other scene in your book. Does it add to the story?

For the rest, it's how you handle it. As with violence or scary elements, the key -- in my opinion -- is that the language is evocative but not explicit. You can raise all kinds of emotions without falling into the Tab A, Slot B kind of thing. I remember reading books when I was 12-13 where I knew some level of intimacy had happened between the characters, but it wasn't until I re-read them at 16-17 that I really understood *what* had happened. Both reads were satisfying.

There was a Madeliene L'Engle story where the girl got involved with an older man. I can't remember if it was her teacher or not. It was so skillfully done, you knew what happened, but because it was the effects and the emotions that were important, not the act. I think it was a Polly O'Keefe story. Arm of the Starfish?

Nadine said...

No! I really wish I did! Maybe I'll surf Amazon... it's an older book, and I'd recognize the cover if I saw it.

I'm impressed you're so far into your second book! How many works are you aiming for?

Heather Davis said...

Dona, this is a great post.

I struggled with this idea in writing my last book. I didn't want a "lily white" heroine, because my own teen exp was not that way -- and I don't there is even such a thing in most cases. You learn about sex, drugs, drinking and that kind of stuff when you grow up -- and the choices, values, etc, you make influence who you become.

That said, I don't think one should throw it in casually if it's not necessary -- but to add an element of realism, you have to take into account reality, right?